I knew nothing about the country, the culture, the food, the music, and especially (I had given it little thought) the language. I had no preconceptions that I was aware of, and the height of my mental preparation had been a few Google searches. I’d met one Hungarian previously, in the kitchen of a guesthouse in Sydney in 2003. I’d liked her.
I arrived alone, on a Saturday afternoon in late September. It was a warm, clear day. I had instructions to call my landlord – Tibor – when I landed. I did just that, and was met with a friendly, apparently excited, welcome over the phone. My mood was distinctly positive. As I arrived into the city, positive became elated to the point of tears at the sight of the beauty of where I was to spend the next month. It was a perfect afternoon, with the Buda hills and the Liberty monument set against a vibrant blue sky. The architecture had an exotic magnificence, and, apparently along with the German tourists on the seat in front of me, I was very impressed.
The driver dropped me off on my street, near the river in Buda, but unfortunately couldn’t help me find my door. It was a small street, lined with trees, and I noticed an entrance decorated with the porcelain head of a Madonna and some graffitti. It wasn’t mine. After some searching, I found my door and buzzed Tibor. Tibor was in his socks. Tibor was drunk.
My flat was small, but bright, with the smallest kitchen I’ve ever seen and one of the most charming balconies I’ve ever sat on. I won’t lie, Tibor unnerved me. Perhaps it was being in a foreign city, alone, in a flat with a drunk man? But, after some conversation and the discussion of a map he’d kindly photocopied, I felt more at ease. Tibor left, I looked around – slightly disheartened by the visibly aged bedsheets, and annoyed with myself for being so – packed a handbag, picked up my new keys, and headed outside into the city. The plan was to wander freely, eventually find somewhere to sit and take it all in, possibly even meet some people to continue my way into the Hungarian evening with. That was the plan.
I turned left onto Margit Körút, and headed towards a supermarket Tibor had recommended. For those of you who know it, if I mention the fact that this was a GRoby you’ll be able to gather that Tibor probably had a wife, and probably didn’t go shopping very often. That would be correct. Anyway, I didn’t get far enough to discover this particular retail delight, as a few minutes onto the körút a young guy came towards me on a bicycle. It was a hot, sunny afternoon, and he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. As he cycled closer I noticed him lifting his T-shirt - I didn’t think much of this, until he was level with me. At this point I realised that it wasn’t just his stomach that he’d revealed, and understood that for the second time in my life, I’d been flashed. Indecently exposed. Whatever you want to call it. The first time I’d been with my mother. We’d laughed. This time I was alone. I didn’t. I was furious, mainly because he’d unnerved me far more than Tibor (hopefully) ever could. I was furious because he’d ruined a beautiful afternoon, and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t shake the ’vulnerable female alone’ feeling that he’d created in me. The city didn’t do it. He did. I think I must have known even at that point that I’d be here for a while, as I distinctly remember thinking, „If I see him again, I’ll probably punch him.”.
So, my plans were thwarted somewhat, try as I did to stay on track. I turned back and headed over the river, onto Margit Híd (a bridge), shaken. The city was as beautiful as it had been an hour ago, so I tried to focus upon this. I’m not someone who gets nervous when alone in new places easily. I’ve walked late at night on many streets I probably shouldn’t have, and not batted an eyelid. I’d never, however, encountered a mobile flasher. This was new.
I continued to walk accross the bridge, envious of yet comforted by the carefree tourists taking photographs of the striking parliament building, and noticed hundreds of bikes below. I remember thinking, „Wow. It’s a city that likes bikes a lot!”. I didn’t realise I’d arrived on the day of Critical Mass – a biannual bicycle protest held here in the city.
As a result of my initial cyclist friend, the day concluded with me buying a frozen paella and some wine from a small supermarket on the körút. I took my distinctly un-Hungarian provisions home, unpacked, cooked, found BBC World and locked my door. I slept with the light on for 3 nights. I’m ashamed to admit this.
The reason I’ve introduced my diary with this colourful tale is to highlight one of the biggest lessons this city has taught me, and that is that appearances can be deceptive. First impressions don’t always count. I didn’t like it here.